The Invisible Burden Webinar: Getting To The Root of Overtourism

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Authored by Ivory Vogt, Sustainability Associate at PATA

On September 11, 2019 PATA hosted a webinar featuring representatives from Cornell University, EplerWood International, Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA) in Thailand, the Travel Foundation, to discuss the invisible burden of tourism and some solutions that could be incorporated by tourism planners. The panellists were:

They were joined by 70 participants, ranging from tour and hotel operators, academics, destination managers and other tourism professionals. To enjoy a recording of the full webinar, click here.

The premise of the webinar was that while tourism can bring economic development, it also comes with a wide range of hidden costs. Failing to account for this ‘invisible burden’ puts ecosystems, cultures, and communities at risk. The unaccounted costs of tourism were analysed in  the ground-breaking report Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of tourism’

Figure 1: The Invisible Burden of tourism (2019:10, Table 1: Operational Externalities)

Megan Epler Wood presented research highlighting a lack of accounting systems to capture the full costs of managing tourism at the destination level. At the moment, the tourism industry only measures gross economic impact and not gross economic cost. Epler Wood stressed that when costs for maintenance and the transition to sustainable energy alternatives are not accounted for, destinations will continue to degrade and begin to lose value per tourist. As a result, destinations are often in debt, losing money per tourist. 

Epler Wood encouraged managers to adopt new methods to evaluate and monitor impacts on local infrastructure and systems at each tourist site. SMART Destinations, which she wrote about in her book Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet , was a suggested approach to measure the impact of tourism and protect historic city centres, cultural monuments, vital ecosystems, and socio-cultural systems. She also discussed GIS mapping as a visual tool to aid city planners in sustainable land use planning and demand management systems. 

Epler Wood championed for more scientific and data-driven approaches to identify critical tipping points. In order to do this, it is vital to have local participation and regular monitoring. In the future, she believes the tourism industry will need new platforms and data systems to manage the invisible burden, meet SDG goals, and lower GhG emissions. These platforms and systems require investments on a national and international level.

Figure 2: SMART Destination (Epler Wood’s Presentation)

Dr. Mark Milstein elaborated about investments needed to manage the invisible burden. He believes this is at a critical stage due to threats such as the loss of biodiversity and global warming. In addition, the increasing expectations by millennials for businesses to play a larger role alleviating environmental and social issues, if left unaddressed signals trouble for the private sector. 

Tourism destinations are going to suffer more from ecological harm and climate change than other industries because the industry relies so heavily on social, cultural and environmental assets. It is common knowledge that good companies reinvest in the assets that make them good businesses. 

Milstein asked, why is the same not being done in tourism?  “The problem is tourism-related companies are not collectively, intentionally, managing the very destination assets on which their businesses are built. And that’s just bad business practice…This industry needs to take the same steps to invest in the very assets that are the foundations for tourism over time.”

Options include tourism taxes/ fees, conservation financing, green bonds as well as crowdfunding to improve infrastructure and protect natural areas. Studies have shown that tourists appreciate investments in sites and that destination fees and taxes do not slow growth, although there is a misconception that they do. 

The last important element Milstein mentioned is to have leadership to develop strategic tourism policy frameworks and emission measurements and reporting systems. He concluded his presentation by saying, the goal of destination management should be to redirect investable tourism dollars to infrastructure and asset improvements rather than simply towards more destination marketing. 

Figure 3: Tourism Infrastructure Image (Milstein’s Presentation: Slide 5)

The last panellist, Watcharee Churugsa, Director at DASTA, provided a case study of carrying capacity in Chiang Khan, Thailand. Chiang Khan is known for its traditional wooden houses along the Mekong River along with its rich culture and heritage. In Thailand overtourism impacts include waste, polluted water, lack of water in islands, the outnumbering of migrant workers versus local residents and highly increased living expenses. Chiang Khan similarly has negative impacts. To tackle the negative impacts of tourism and spread more of the benefits, Churugsa’s research calls for destination managers to consider distribution on a local and national scale. In particular the distribution of: 

  1. Places
  2. Time 
  3. Income

DASTA worked with local people and government organizations to solve the problems of overtourism in Chiang Khan by mapping the distribution of tourists. They were able target areas for improvements including improved toilets, parking lots, accommodation, zoning and pathways. 

Churugsa stressed that this needs local collaboration through CBT working groups to create new tourist attractions like street art and storytelling, in order to redistribute the flow of traffic in crowded areas. In the end, Churugsa said that carrying capacity studies and management plans are very important for all destinations. Invisible burdens of tourism can be avoided if tourism planners and destination managers have a good understanding of the importance of carrying capacity and engage local communities. 

In summary, the Invisible Burden Webinar called for destination managers and planners to uncover and account for tourism’s hidden costs and to protect their assets. Like any good business, destination managers must invest in the assets that give value. To succeed the tourism industry needs to build the knowledge and skills of its people to use science-based, data-driven analysis such as SMART Destinations and GIS Mapping. 

All panellists agreed that the “invisible burden” of tourism puts ecosystems, cultures, and communities at risk and if ignored, destinations will continue to degrade and lose value per tourist. 

In conclusion we thank all our panellists and participants! 

The following are the Q&A portion of the webinar including some questions not able to be answered during the webinar, but answered via follow-up email. 

Feedback on future webinars included “Smart Management of Destinations” and “New Skills and Resources” to help combat invisible burdens. If you would like to submit a request for our next webinar, please send an email to: ssr@pata.org

Links to the resources discussed in the webinar: 

Destinations at Risk, The Invisible Burden  (2019)

Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet  (2017)

Overtourism Webinar Recording 


Q&A with Megan Epler Wood,  Dr. Mark Milstein and Watcharee Churugsa: Q&A with Megan Epler Wood,  Dr. Mark Milstein and Watcharee Churugsa: 

What’s the role of OTA’s in this?

Megan: We all know that international supply chains have become a big part of the questions we are raising here. NOTAs’ are a growing factor on how to manage destinations at the local level. There hasn’t been enough conversations with that community. They are an essential part of the conversation and as destinations plan to organize around data centers and investments platforms, they will begin to come to the table.

How could we train local tourism developers to understand these data-centered approaches?

Mark: It doesn’t necessarily mean training the current professionals in their current roles for doing something they are not familiar with. We see this problem more widespread in the area of sustainability in business when it comes to innovation and development of products and services that address social and environmental problems. Part of it is yes, training people to understand why it is that current approaches to destination management are falling short. But then, it has got to be a collaborative process to get those who are already involved in the industry to recognize and understand that certain skill sets are needed and people with these new skills need to be brought into the field. This represents a shift in the field. This doesn’t mean that people in the industry should feel threatened. What it does mean is diversifying the portfolio of skills and knowledge of those who are in the industry.

For the example in El Nido, did we take into account that the Philippines, particularly land in Palawan are increasingly becoming properties of elite families and that in turn, they themselves are a major part of the existing governance structures in the country? What is the impact of this and have we explored such contexts? In other destinations like Indonesia, businesses are not aware of sustainability measures how can we implement these recommendations? Tourism businesses run by foreign corporations ought to contribute to this trust fund, however lack the motivation to do so. How could governments make this happen?

Mark: The El Nido example I spoke about, the withholding of the sustainability tax was done by an organization that was controlled by one of those kinds of families. On the one hand it was seen by some as usurping public decision-making around the use of those tourism taxes. The company themselves had a higher standard of sustainability than the local municipality was. And after observing decisions by local leadership on what the company considered a misallocation of funds that were not going to sustainability related investments. The company said we will continue to collect those taxes but we will hold them until such time that there is a transparent and publicly vetted plan for spending that money. There is no doubt that there can be abuse in the system, but what it shows us that whether it is local family ownership in a region, whether it is large multinationals where ownership is distal, where at least on the surface and international organization may not care about a locality, I think a lot of cases it’s actually the opposite. They have so much invested and so much at stake. They are seeing much bigger trends than sometimes the locality does. They know how important sustainability is for an increasing set of travellers. They know how important the quality of the destination is to continue to attract those people to a locality. Their own standards can exceed what the local standards are. And for those who are really concerned about these issues, having some of that concentration in the industry provides an opportunity to get those folks to begin collaborating on these kinds of approaches, instead of having to convince hundreds of small companies to get on board. 

Megan: One of the things that is critical for us as a field in travel and tourism is to look at governance. I led the research on the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative ISTI Framework at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and we included an impartial researcher related to governance so that we can discuss some reorganization of government to track at the local level using data centers how to maintain a standard of quality for visitors. That will take a dialogue. But it is also important that specialists in how government can be restructured should be part of the collaboration and discussion. We all know that at times, we need to change our governance in order to bring in the right expertise at the right time. And this is the right time to consider a change in governance. Especially to ensure that these types of investors who do care, are seeing a set of standards that can be financed and ultimately improved at the local level. If they see chaos, they are not going to be involved. So I think it is important to remember that bringing a concerted effort and dialogue now to a change in governance using data centers will attract the corporate sector. 

Could the panelists talk a bit more about solutions for addressing the negative impact on quality of life for local residents in destinations? Was this something you addressed in the case study of Chiang Khan?

Watcharee: Actually because of the increased number of visitors, they got the benefits from tourism. But how can we distribute the benefits to local people equally and throughout the communities? So community-based tourism is the alternative way to set up working groups in local communities to work together in terms of what they can do.  For example a group of cooks, can get together and make traditional food. A group of story-tellers, can get together and set up an event to talk about their history and local culture. A group of boat drivers can set up something on the river. They have a tourism community fund that they can use to protect their environment and improve the social welfare of their communities. This can help in terms of their community of life.  In addition, the public sector works closely with local communities in a meeting where they come together in order to implement the management plan they have done together. I think this can contribute to sustainability. But the most important thing is monitoring and evaluation and this has to be done every year to account for benefits and costs. The municipality uses the global tourism criteria to be a standard in order to achieve the standard.

How can a relatively undeveloped/unknown destination move from a disadvantaged position in terms of market recognition to a leader by addressing/mitigating over tourism risks in the early stages of the destination development cycle? An example of such a destination is Timor-Leste.

Megan: That is an exciting prospect. It is well known that getting systems in place early to correct the problem costs less and can prevent problems that are getting out of control and can therefore create a hire value for the tourist. We all know that tourists in general are looking for the next place. The travel media is dedicated to covering what are hottest, new places every year. I think by using both the ability to prevent some of these problems with having the proper investments early and getting the benefit of that for local people alone, having the municipal systems to ensure that everyone has a livable place that is good for tourists is the goal right? That we can all be together because this industry does generate so much revenue. It’s a question of reallocating it in a way that is good for everyone. Once that happens, you create a sense of well-being and I’ve been in places like that where it is achieved successfully. Then there’s a flush of interest in the place, because the media is quick to find this out. So I think it’s a great idea, and it’s possible as well.

Where can steps to educate tourists before departing/at arrival at the destination regarding traditional customs/rules etc. be given?

Participants: Palau Pledge is a great example of how this has been done

To account for the “Invisible burden” caused by tourism operation in destination, what could be the best tools or methods to collect the data, so it could be accessed by relevant stakeholders? As several tour operators are publishing “Sustainability Reports” each year, would it be one of the tools that we can use or would it be similar to something like the Dow Jones Sustainability Index that account how well we manage our responsible operations for investors and stakeholders?

Mark and Megan: The Invisible Burden is measured at the destination level.  Companies seeking to report on their environmental and governance metrics (ESG) are the most prepared to manage the metrics by which they can contribute to the measurement of the Invisible Burden. Such metrics do drive a significant amount of investment and have been shown by Harvard Business School to enhance corporate performance.   The corporate ESG metrics will reveal the risk of not protecting destination resources. We are seeing an increasing number of cases where islands and destinations are being closed due to the lack of accounting of the Invisible Burden at the destination level. As was noted during the webinar however, corporate sustainability reports, specifically, are communication tools that do not often make particularly good management tools because firms select which issues and/or measures to discuss. The documents are not held to any rigorous standard making comparisons within and across such reports very difficult. Unless the criteria against which companies are measuring and recording are standardized and conducted rigorously there is limited utility of those reports. 

How to manage overtourism issues when incoming tourists themselves feel threatened by sustainability measures?

Mark and Megan: It is not clear what is meant by “threatened by sustainability measures”. Tourists themselves are not responding well to overtourism. The resulting impacts on the environment, parks, monuments, and other destinations from overcrowding are directly seen and experienced by tourists who were often sold a vision of a destination that promised peacefulness and serenity. Sustainability measures are intended to ensure destinations are managed in a way that keeps them consistent over time with the image projected to tourists who want to visit places that are clean, safe, and vibrant. Research confirms that young people from about 20-45 years of age are placing a high value on the protection of natural resources.  There is a great concern at this time, led by Greta Thunberg of Sweden, that companies and governments are not doing enough to protect their future. This would apply to the travel and tourism industry which presently accounts for 8% of the global GhG (carbon) emissions according to the May 2018 Lenzen et al study, The carbon footprint of global tourism. Visitors need not fear sustainability measures, in fact they are meant to protect destinations for future generations of travelers and local residents.

Can centralizing all destination reservations and rationing on a head count minimize such overutilization of assets?

Mark and Megan: Centralization of all reservations may not be terribly feasible given the highly diverse travel and tourism digital supply chains.  Rather, the key heritage and park hotspot attractions which drive overtourism need centralized reservations via regional data centers to stem overdemand. Such lynchpin attractions are usually the pinch point for many visitors, who are frustrated by a lack of proper service and poor facilities at these sites. A demand management system could create order in what is now chaos.  Destinations cannot depend only on luxury pricing or diversion of demand as the means of stemming overuse. Rather a demand management system, discussed in the report The Invisible Burden, should be based on space availability and include overhead costs built in to manage the sites. Conditions of use could include adjustment by season of use, level of exclusivity of access to the site, and access to approved group tours with specialist guides on site to drive local employment, amongst many other possible criteria.  Such criteria will protect value for a broad range of businesses and destinations and must be carefully set with both public and private concerns considered equally. 

Nowadays, influencers have a great role in promoting certain products and services. Is overtourism related to these influencers?

Mark and Megan: Influencers are a small proportion of the issue when it comes to crowded destinations to date, though they certainly attract visitors to specific locales.  If hotspot areas can be protected from highly compensated Instagram “celebrities” with huge followings, this might lower the problem. For example, influencers should pay for access to hotspot attractions at a special rate calculated by the fees they are being paid per post.  Afterall, this is just a cost of doing business for them. A permit system would only be fair if you think about it. The key is that they must divulge their payment transparently and pay an appropriate pro-rated fee. Setting such policies requires education worldwide on how social media markets operate without transparency, an increasingly dangerous phenomenon.

How could we train local tourism developers to understand data-centered approaches?

Mark and Megan: A new digital media system to offer training is what is required.  We at Cornell STAMP are working towards a system in which digital training will be available, based on all the work done in the publication the Invisible Burden and my book, Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet.